Fear froze me in my tracks, and I stood in the doorway, listening. His tone was so panicked, so desperate. I did not want to know what had put that fear in him.
I didn’t move from the doorway as he ended the call and turned. I had been eavesdropping on him, and I’d just as soon have him know it. Perhaps he would tell me what had happened, and it wouldn’t be as bad as the dread coursing through me was telling me it was.
He flinched when he saw me standing there, and that was so not good for my peace of mind. We suffered through a very long, awkward silence while he rubbed his temples and I watched him.
“Everything okay?” I finally asked him.
He grimaced. “It will be,” he said. That was all.
“Who is Roger?” I asked. Being with James seemed to have added nosy quite firmly to my list of character flaws.
“An old family friend. A sort of mentor to me. And my lawyer.”
I thought that sounded ominous, but he didn’t elaborate, and I didn’t ask him to. If he didn’t want to share, I couldn’t make him.
He moved to me finally. He ran a hand over my hair, grabbing it firmly at my nape. He used it like a handle to tilt my face up to him. There was trouble in his eyes. “Did you mean what you said last night?”
I studied him, beyond confused. “About what?”
His jaw clenched and he watched me for a long time. “About loving me. I know you were tired and scared from the nightm—“
I couldn’t take it. I interrupted him rudely. “Of course I did! I wouldn’t say something like that just because I was tired.”
“Say it again,” he ordered roughly.
“I love you. Of course I do. You shouldn’t doubt me. I wouldn’t say it unless I meant it.”
“How conditional is that love? How much are you willing to withstand just to stay with me?”
I was starting to get angry. “I don’t like the question. Love in a monogamous relationship has to have some conditions, James. If you were unfaithful—“
“I’m not talking about that. I’d never do that. Does your love have other conditions?”
I glared at him, but I shook my head, finding the answer way too quickly. “I don’t think that it does, James. But again, I don’t like the question. Do you want to tell me why you’re asking it?”
He was gripping my hair to the point of pain now. “I’m asking it because every time I think that we’re on our way to building a future together, something from the past gets in the way, and I need to know that won’t happen to us again.”
I thought he was being deliberately vague, but I let it go. I was in no mood to open Pandora’s Box. “The past can only hurt us if we let it, if it really is the past that we’re talking about.”
He studied me, then kissed me roughly. He brought his mouth to my ear. “I want to tie you to my bed. Now. I want to keep you there.”
My brain short-circuited for an instant, going to that sublime place that only James could take me to. “I need to leave for the airport soon.”
“I know. That’s why I want to do it. So you can’t leave.”
I tried to meet his eyes to give him an exasperated look, but he was kissing me, invading my mouth until I forgot why what he’d said was so outrageous.
He pulled back only when he’d left me breathless and wanting.
“Have you given any thought to your painting career?” he demanded. “When would you like to start planning your first showing?”
I had, in fact, been thinking about it. It was a persistent sort of distraction in my brain. Especially when I considered that James currently paid much more to have me followed and protected on flights than I was actually earning on those flights. It seemed so wasteful and senseless.
“I have,” I admitted.
His jaw clenched when I didn’t elaborate. “And what are your thoughts?”
I gave him my little shrug. “I’m mulling it over.”
He gave me a rather pained smile. “Well, you let me know when you’re done mulling,” he bit out. “I would love to know your thoughts on the matter.”
He was obviously upset, but he dropped it after that.
We made our way upstairs. I put on my uniform while he put on his ungodly expensive suit. He was ready first, taking another mysterious phone call. He strode from the room, phone to his ear, while I put on a bit of makeup.
He was quiet and a little distant on the drive to the airport. He kept me close, a hand in my hair and the other on my knee. The distance was all in his eyes and his expression, which had been very carefully blank since that second phone call.
He only came to life briefly when we reached the airport and it was time to say goodbye. He let the guys file out before crushing his mouth against mine, his kiss was hungry and desperate.
We were both breathless and agitated when he pulled back.
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
He nodded, but that trouble hadn’t left his eyes.
“Bye,” I told him.
He got out first to hand me out. “I love you, Bianca,” he said.
I nodded. “I love you too, James,” I said steadily. I didn’t even feel the need to panic or withdraw at the words. They already came easily to my lips. I had it so bad.
Stephan, Javier and I were lucky to get a row of seats together for the flight, since we were flying space available. We all tried to sleep since we’d be working well into the next morning, but I didn’t think any of us got more than a one-hour nap on the four and a half hour flight.
I woke up from my nap as the plane began to descend for landing, the feeling familiar enough to act like an alarm on my body. My head was pillowed against Stephan’s shoulder. I rubbed my cheek against that supple muscle before pulling back to look at him. His arms were crossed over his chest, making his muscles bulge attractively. He was smiling and awake. He looked as happy as I’d ever seen him. It was a good sight for my heart, especially after all of the drama from the night before.
I saw that Javier was still passed out; his head pillowed onto Stephan’s other shoulder.
“Morning, Buttercup,” Stephan said softly.
“Just sitting here smiling while we sleep on you?” I asked him with a smile.
He just flashed a dimple at me, nodding. “Sandwiched by my two favorite people in the world. What’s not to smile about?”
I had to laugh. “So what happened last night?” I asked him. I didn’t want to ruin the mood, but I needed to know. That had been a lot of drama to be squashed so easily.
“Javier said he loves me,” he said with a very soft smile.
I was relieved and confused all at once. “What about before that?”
He grimaced and told me briefly about Vance and the way he’d bullied Javier.
I gripped his hand when he finished. I wasn’t sure what to think about all of it. Javier did have a reputation for loving drama, but on the other hand, I’d met Vance, and that one lived and breathed the stuff. I did know one thing, though. Stephan believed Javier with a certainty, and he would feel horrible for not defending the other man—instead walking away when he was being harassed.
“If that was what really happened, you couldn’t have known.”
He gave me a stern look. “You don’t believe that’s what happened?”
I gave him my little shrug. “You know I’m more cynical than you. I don’t know what to believe, but of course, I have my doubts. That doesn’t matter, though. If you’re together, I support that, because it’s what you want.”
He gave me a sad smile. “You shouldn’t be so cynical. I have no doubts about Javier, Bianca.”
I nodded, watching him carefully. “I know. And like I said, that’s enough for me.”
“When are you going to learn that I’m not the only trustworthy person in the world?”
I didn’t have an answer for that. At least, not one that he wanted to hear. Nothing but time and consistency would make me trust Javier with Stephan’s heart, and the drama of the night before had done nothing but set that time further back, whatever his story was.
“You don’t think he’s good enough for me,” he said, clear reproof in his voice.
I had to smile at that. “I don’t think anyone is good enough for you, myself included.”
He just shook his head.
We’d been over this, and neither of us ever budged.
“I told James that I love him,” I told him quietly.
I heard the familiar sound of the wheels coming down from the plane. I was surprised that Javier was still sleeping peacefully.
Stephan beamed at me. “That’s wonderful. Your therapist would be proud.”
I laughed, hardly offended, since he only spoke the truth.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what he said?” I asked him.
He shook his head without hesitation. “He’s been head over heels from the start, Buttercup. I had no doubts. That man worships the ground you walk on.”
We had almost no downtime once we got to Las Vegas. Javier and Stephan said a quick and circumspect goodbye, though I could practically see the heat snapping between them.
We shuttled to our airline’s headquarters, checked in, and prepped for our flight, though that entire process was hardly uneventful.
All of the other crews that we greeted were abuzz with the recent announcement that our airline had filed for Chapter eleven bankruptcy. We were still in business for the moment, but speculation as to what that meant for us was running rampant.
I was mostly in shock about the whole thing. Stephan and I shared a very long look that meant we would talk about it later. The shuttle we took back to the airport was so loud with everyone voicing opinions and fears that we couldn’t have heard each other over the noise if we’d tried.
I texted James.
Bianca: Did you hear the news about the airline?
James: Yes. Can you talk on the phone right now?
Bianca: It’s too loud on the bus. I’ll call you from the plane.
I had a few brief minutes to call him once we got on the plane, between prep time and boarding.
He was very much Mr. Cavendish when he answered the phone. “Hello, Bianca.”
“Hello, Mr. Cavendish,” I said, because I knew who I was talking to. “What do you think of all this bankruptcy stuff? I don’t know what any of it means. It sounds really bad, but people are saying that we could still stay in business.”
I heard his audible sigh over the line. It didn’t bode well. “If you want my candid professional opinion on the matter, what it means is that the airline will stay in business for around a year before its fleet of aircrafts will be grounded for good. Your CEO has exhausted literally every avenue of funding at his disposal, gone to every connection, large and small, that he has. He refuses to give up control of the airline, and he’s never run one successfully, though he has tried several times. He approached me about funding, which is actually why I was on the flight where I met you, but I had to decline based solely on the fact that it would have been a disastrous business decision for me. He was not willing to make any leadership concessions, and I wasn’t willing to throw a hundred mil away on a man with a clear history of failure.”